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Trauma-informed pedagogies in higher education

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Girl sitting looking out window

Trauma, whether disclosed or not, is ubiquitous in higher education settings. Research suggests that between 66 and 85% of post-secondary students have a history of trauma (Carello & Butler, 2014; Day, 2019) with the most common sources for those aged 16 to 20 being death of loved ones, serious illness, sexual assault and violence, and family violence (Carello & Butler, 2014). Further, students may experience trauma during their post-secondary studies, increasing this prevalence further (Carello & Butler, 2014). Given these statistics, it is likely that there is a trauma-affected person in every class or service setting, making trauma-informed pedagogical practices a necessity in higher education.

What is trauma?

Balaev (2018) defines trauma as “a severely disruptive experience that profoundly impacts the self’s emotional organization and perceptions of the external world.” While this is broader than the clinical definition of post-traumatic stress disorder presented in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV), taking a less medicalized view of trauma that does not necessitate a clinical diagnosis can be more inclusive to those for whom diagnosis itself is a barrier or whose trauma does not rise to the level of diagnosis but affects their lives nonetheless (Carter, 2015). Importantly, trauma does not have to be experienced directly by an individual but can include intergenerational and transhistorical traumas, such as those related to Indigenous communities and residential schools, or secondary and vicarious traumas through learning about the trauma of another person (Conley et al., 2019). Trauma is further linked to power and marginalization, with Indigenous, racialized, and 2SLGBTQIA+ communities, as well as additional marginalized groups more likely to be affected by trauma as well as experiencing the ongoing trauma of oppression and microaggressions in their day-to-day lives (Carter, 2015; Davidson, n.d.).

What are the effects of trauma?

Trauma can have cognitive and emotional effects that can have a major impact on someone’s quality of life, including their ability to work and attend school and relate to other people. Trauma-affected people may avoid places, people, activities, and events that remind them of the person or event associated with their trauma, they may have flashbacks, dreams, and intrusive thoughts at cues related to the event (also known as triggers), which can also lead to physical reactions, and they can experience memory lapses, difficulty sleeping, irritability, increased startle response, and other cognitive and emotional effects (American Psychiatric Association, 2013), all of which can contribute to difficulties with academic pursuits (Carello & Butler, 2014).

What does it mean to be trauma-informed?

Harris and Fallot (2001) coined the term trauma-informed care with regard to clinical settings in which practitioners understand the impact of trauma in the lives of service users and design services under the assumption that anyone can be trauma-affected regardless of whether they disclose. They laid out five principles to guide trauma-informed care: safety, trustworthiness, choice and control, collaboration, and empowerment, all of which can be centred in any service setting to better support trauma-affected individuals.

What is trauma-informed pedagogy?

Trauma-informed pedagogy involves applying the principles of trauma-informed care to teaching and learning with an overarching goal to centre learning while “doing no harm” in the process (Carello & Butler, 2014). Trauma-informed pedagogy does not seek to identify, label, diagnose, cure, or remediate trauma-affected students in any way; instead, it emphasizes equity, understands trauma as mediated by power and oppression, and seeks to change practices and systems to support those who are trauma-affected (Venet, 2021).

A critical disability lens

Harris and Fallot (2001) based their model of trauma-informed care on the model of being disability-informed; therefore, a critical disability lens is valuable to understand trauma-informed pedagogy and care as beneficial to all learners. In the social model of disability, it is recognized that disabilities themselves do not need to be ‘fixed’ or remediated in any way; instead, the barriers that disabled people face to accessibility are the problem (Kafer, 2013). While it would not make sense to conflate trauma, an undesirable experience that occurs to someone, with disability, which makes up a positive and important aspect of many peoples’ lives and identities, employing a critical disability model allows for a focus on fixing systems and access rather than applying a problematic deficit lens to trauma-affected people (Blackburn, 2019). Borrowing from Universal Design for Learning, applying a trauma-informed approach benefits everyone, whether they have a history of trauma or not, and removes the barriers of requiring formal diagnosis or disclosure to receive accommodations, which are instead the standard, not the exception (Hitt, 2015). We do not need to know who in a classroom is trauma-affected to create a caring and compassionate environment based on an ethic of care that fosters safety for everyone.

Practical Strategies to Embed Trauma-Informed Pedagogies

The following are some examples of strategies that can be used to embed trauma-informed principles in the classroom:

Remove material that could be re-traumatizing from the course if it is not necessary (for example, instead of looking at data about suicide in a statistics course, choose a different data set if the content is incidental) (Carello & Butler, 2015). For reflective papers, consider asking students to write about their future rather than their past (Swartzlander et al., 1993), and consider the ways that assignment prompts may lead to difficult topics for students from marginalized groups. 

Forecast content that may be triggering for students in cases where the content is necessary to the course. While there are various perspectives on ‘trigger warnings’ or content notes, forecasting what a student can expect in the course (through the syllabus for example) in terms of subject matter can allow them the choice to opt-in to experiencing that content in a way that is safe for them. This could mean watching a video from home rather than in the classroom if they anticipate they may find the material triggering (Carter, 2015). Instructors might anonymously request submissions at the beginning of term for what type of material students may need a forecast for as triggers can vary (Orem & Simpkins, 2015). 

Flexibility for everyone: build in flexibility around assignments, including related to due dates without requiring a personal disclosure. Flexibility and choice in topics for assignments and readings can also provide students control and allow them to fully engage with material (Carello & Butler, 2015).

Consistency matters: being predictable and consistent in your teaching and practices can give students a sense of control and allow them to be prepared (for example previewing the material that is to come in the following week and notifying students in advance of any changes to delivery or schedule).

Space can be a concern for some students. Consider the physical space and layout of your classroom and allow flexibility for students who may need to work from a specific location (ex. without their back facing a door) (Carello & Butler, 2014).

Be open to acknowledging ‘difficult’ feelings without judgement or stigma (Carello & Butler, 2015). Be clear about confidentiality and its limitations in a classroom setting in order to establish clear boundaries and maintain trust.

Community is key. Just as trauma is often caused by systemic factors and power imbalances, emphasizing communities of care and compassion is critical (Carello & Thompson, 2022). This can include collaboratively setting up guidelines and discussing class needs and best practices with students at the beginning of term.

Refer to appropriate campus services, such as Student Counselling, or the Office of Sexual Violence Prevention, Resistance, and Support as needed, and reach out to these offices for support should you have questions or require direction (Day, 2019); however, be sure to also acknowledge barriers to accessing services, including internalized stigma.

COVID-19 and trauma

COVID-19 has been a clear source of trauma for many people, including loss of loved ones, gender-based violence, and the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 as well as trauma in general on Indigenous, racialized, disabled, 2SLGBTQIA+, and poor communities (Wood 2021). Within education, COVID-19 also demonstrated the ways in which institutions can demonstrate flexibility and pivot their practices for all students, not just those with recognized accommodations, including hybrid learning options, flexible deadlines, alternative grading schemes, and demonstrating understanding and compassion for lived experience (Turner, 2021). These are lessons that we can take from the impact of the pandemic to build a more flexible, collaborative, and empowering trauma-informed educational setting all the time.

Further steps

Educators often get nervous around the idea of interacting with students around trauma because “I’m not a therapist,” but you don’t have to be a therapist to use trauma-informed strategies in the classroom or service setting. There are trained professionals available on campus who can provide therapy and counselling to students; however, it is incumbent upon everyone to react to students affected by trauma with compassion and an ethic of care. 

Seeking mental health first aid training can be one way to ease this discomfort about not knowing what to do/say (Day, 2019). It is also important to be mindful of the risk of taking on secondary or vicarious trauma through learning about events that have occurred to someone else (Carello & Butler, 2014). Just as a lifeguard cannot support a swimmer if they are drowning themselves, instructors must ensure that they are taking care of their own mental health in order to avoid taking on the traumas of students or clients. This can involve setting clear boundaries, engaging mental health services, reflective journalling, exercise, or other practices that work for the individual. It may also involve working in community with campus partners, modifying curriculum and assignments, and advocating for supportive labour conditions, benefits, and time off to protect mental health. Just as trauma is embedded in systems, so too is care, meaning that care and compassion through trauma-informed practices necessarily start in community and collaboration with other educators as well as students. 

References

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostical and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.)American Psychiatric Association.

Balaev, M. (2018). Trauma studies. In D. H. Richter (Ed.), A companion to literary theory (pp. 360-371). John Wiley & Sons. https://lo.unisa.edu.au/pluginfile.php/2655680/mod_resource/content/1/Balaev%202018.pdf

Blackburn, L. (2019). Toward a trauma-informed pedagogy. [Doctoral dissertation, Michigan State University]. MSU Libraries Digital Repository.

Carello, J., & Butler, L. D. (2014). Potentially perilous pedagogies: Teaching trauma is not the same as trauma-informed teaching. Journal of Trauma and Dissociation, 15(2), 153-168. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/15299732.2014.867571

Carello, J., & Butler, L. D. (2015). Practicing what we teach: Trauma-informed educational practice. Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 35(3), 262-278. https://doi.org/10.1080/08841233.2015.1030059

Carello, J., & Thompson, P. (2022). Developing a new default in higher education: We are not alone in this work. In P. Thompson & J. Carello (Eds.), Trauma-informed pedagogies: A guide for responding to crisis and inequality in higher education (pp. 1-12). Springer Link.

Carter, A. M. (2015). Teaching with trauma: Trigger warnings, feminism, and disability pedagogy. Disability Studies Quarterly, 35(2). https://dsq-sds.org/article/view/4652/3935

Conley, S., Ferguson, A., & Kumbier, A. (2019). Supporting students with histories of trauma in libraries. Library Trends, 67(3), 526-549. http://doi.org/10.1353/lib.2019.0001

Davidson, S. (n.d.). Trauma-informed practices for postsecondary education: A guide. Education Northwest. https://educationnorthwest.org/sites/default/files/resources/trauma-informed-practices-postsecondary-508.pdf

Day, M. (2019). Wounds and writing: Building trauma-informed approaches to writing pedagogy (Publication No. 3178). [Doctoral dissertation, University of Louisville]. ThinkIR: The University of Louisville’s Institutional Repository. 

Harris, M., & Fallot, R. D. (2001). Envisioning a trauma-informed service system: A vital paradigm shift. In M. Harris & R. D. Fallot (Eds.), Using trauma theory to design service systems. New directions for mental health services, 89, 3-22. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/toc/15584453/2001/2001/89 

Hitt, A. H. (2015). From accommodations to accessibility: How rhetorics of overcoming manifest in writing pedagogies(Publication No. 214). [Doctoral dissertation, Syracuse University]. Syracuse University Libraries. 

Kafer, A. (2013). Feminist, queer, crip. Indiana University Press. 

Orem, S., & Simpkins, N. (2015). Weepy rhetoric, trigger warnings, and the work of making mental illness visible in the writing classroom. Enculturation: A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture.https://www.enculturation.net/weepy-rhetoric

Swartzlander, S., Pace, D., & Stamler, V. L. (1993, February 17). Requiring students to write about their personal lives. Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/requiring-students-to-write-about-their-personal-lives

Turner, N. K. (2021). Turning emergency-response to standard procedure through a trauma-informed attention to crisis. In J. Carello & P. Thompson (Eds.), Lessons from the pandemic: Trauma-informed approaches to college, crisis, change (pp. 15-22). Springer International. 

Venet, A. S. (2021). Equity-centered trauma-informed education. W.W. Norton. 

Wood, J. M. (2021). Teaching students at the margins: A feminist trauma-informed care pedagogy. In J. Carello & P. Thompson (Eds.), Lessons from the pandemic: Trauma-informed approaches to college, crisis, change (pp. 23-38). Springer International.

Kate Hargreaves (she/her) is currently wrapping up a Master’s in Education in Curriculum Studies with a focus on trauma-informed pedagogies, specifically in post-secondary writing centres. She completed her Master of Arts in English Literature & Creative Writing in 2012 and her Honours BA in the same field in 2010, both at the University of Windsor and is the author of four books of poetry and fiction. Formerly an academic writing advisor, she now works as an administrative assistant in the Office of the Vice-President, People, Equity, and Inclusion at the University of Windsor and plans to pursue a PhD in Education starting in 2024.

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